Pornography and Impulsivity

Most Americans agree that internet pornography is harmful.  A 2006 study is one of many that shows a correlation between consumption of material depicting nonviolent sexual activity and an increase in aggressive behavior by the consumer of that material. BYU FHSS student Bonnie Petersen took a closer look at that relationship between pornography and depression as a part of the 2015 Mentored Student Research Conference .

Her study, “YOU WATCHED WHAT?! Does the Type of Pornography Influence Depression?,” found that “while viewing hardcore pornography, softcore pornography, and sexual content significantly predicts depression, impulsivity may act as a mediating variable.”  In other words, she found that pornography consumption and aggressive behavior were also connected with impulsivity; the less one views pornography, the less impulsive one is likely to be. She suggests that when clinicians work with people dealing with pornography addiction, special attention should be placed on impulsive behavior, since addressing that may be more effective in alleviating depression than in addressing pornography viewing.

The Definition of Pornography

For the study, the word pornography was broken into categories and defined explicitly for participants. Four to five items were then combined into each category of the following:

  • hardcore pornography: (explicit videos of homosexual and heterosexual intercourse, masturbation, three-way sex, etc.)
  • softcore pornography: (written descriptions of sex, photos of nude men/women, photos of intercourse (genetalia not shown)
  • sexual content: (swimsuit magazines, suggestive photos not containing full nudity)

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Furthermore, religious activity may protect adolescents from intentional and accidental exposure to pornography.  Social science research confirms that when concerning pornography, sex and age are important predictors of the likelihood of pornography use, regardless of technological context. A 2013 study titled Adolescent religiousness as a protective factor against pornography use in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, found that for accidental pornographic viewing, “the only indirect effects were from religious internalization through self-regulation and social control, and from religious involvement through social control.”

HITS for Human Data Gathering

To gather research data for her study on the link between impulsivity and pornography, Petersen used Amazon Turk, a site that enables individuals and businesses to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform “hits,” or human intelligence tasks, that computers are currently unable to do. She supplied a survey to an international sample of 387 men and 262 women to measure viewing patterns of pornography.  

Petersen, mentored by assistant professor of Family Life Brian Willoughby, analyzed the data using SPSS software and performed statistical analyses of hierarchical regression models. To further add to her research, Petersen said she would evaluate the role of self-perception of pornography addiction and evaluate how that interacts with the relationship of pornography use and depression. As an undergraduate student, Petersen majored in history with an emphasis in Mormon history.

Do Your Own Research

Now in her first year as a graduate student in the master’s program for Marriage and Family Therapy, Petersen has some advice for students pursuing research of any kind:

  1. Approach your research question with an open mind. She says she was “surprised to find what we found!”
  2. Do thorough prep work. “Understand the existing scholarship and see where your own research fits in with that.”
  3. Work with a mentor who is willing to be patient. “Dr. Willoughby has been an incredible mentor. He was willing to teach me step by step. I’m grateful for his patience with me!”

What kinds of interesting research have you done?

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